- Spoiled, entitled children can grow up to be self-centered, volatile adults who struggle in relationships.
- The underlying causes are polarized parents, parental trauma, unresolved marital issues, a lack of hierarchy.
- The keys are working as a team, having clear structure and consequences, and maintaining clear roles.
In the now classic scene from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt stomps her foot and yells, “I want an Oompa Loompa now!” as her father scrambles to get her one. The more everyday version is the child who throws a tantrum at the grocery checkout line, stomping and yelling to get candy. Other customers shake their heads or roll their eyes as they watch the exasperated parent grab a candy bar off the rack and hand it to the child.
We can call such behavior spoiled, entitled, or plain old bratty. Regardless of the term, children who learn that their tantrums and demands can get them what they want can not only wind up running the family as teens but also struggle in their relationships as adults. Believing that the world revolves around them leaves others seeing them as self-centered, volatile, demanding, and inconsiderate of others. They are often in trouble at work, and home life creates constant strife or leaves everyone walking on eggshells.
What creates bratty behavior and keeps it going? Here are some of the common causes:
The parents are on different pages and polarized.
Ellen is lenient with her son, Tom, because her husband, John, is tough. John is tough because Ellen is so lenient. Tom has learned to squeeze through the cracks and work the system, asking his mom if he can stay out later when his dad is not home. The result is that he usually gets what he wants.
The child is vicariously acting out the parents’ marital issues.
Ellen harbors a lot of resentment and anger towards John, but rather than dealing with John directly, she encourages Tom to act out her anger. When Tom is upset with John, Ellen tells him to complain to his father, stand up for himself, and tell him how he feels. Or sometimes Ellen is less direct—she just sits on the sidelines watching Tom do what she can’t. Not only does this further fuel the polarization, but Tom is essentially treating his father like a peer rather than in the role of a child. As this continues, Tom comes to feel both empowered and entitled.
The child becomes a junior parent.
John and Ellen eventually divorce, with Tom spending most of his time with his mother. Tom is the oldest of three, and Ellen, frequently feeling overwhelmed as a single parent, has come to rely on Tom to help with the younger siblings, as well as looking to him for emotional support. Tom, as the junior parent and almost-peer, feels empowered and entitled. Should Ellen ever remarry and her new husband try to assert any authority over Tom, we could expect the dethroned Tom to aggressively challenge him, potentially recreating his past battles with his father.
The parents have trauma and avoid conflict.
Ellen grew up in a chaotic family where there was abuse, perhaps where one parent had alcohol or drug problems or was mentally ill. In such an environment, she understandably learned to walk on eggshells and be good to avoid creating any conflict. As an adult, she remains fearful of stirring strong emotions and continues to cope in the same way—quickly accommodating and sweeping problems under the rug, even with Tom. Again, the lack of structure and consequences leads to entitled children.
So, how do we not raise a spoiled child? Here are some suggestions:
Work together as a team.
When parents contact me regarding their children, I always start by seeing the parents together without the children. Why? Because I want to make sure that they are on the same page and able to work as a team, backing each other up. If not, the child is likely to be confused and anxious at best but more likely in danger of again squeezing through the cracks and becoming entitled.
Have clear expectations, rules, and consequences.
Even if the parents work as a team, they sometimes fail to set clear rules, routines, and expectations or are inconsistent in enforcing them. You don’t want to run your family like a drill sergeant, but providing a consistent structure helps reduce a child’s anxiety and their continual testing of limits. Even teens, who usually seem to be constantly pushing back against the rules, do better having something solid to bounce off of rather than nothing at all. That said, as parents, you need to review and upgrade the structure as the child grows so you’re not treating your 16-year-old like a 6-year-old.
Maintain a parent-child hierarchy.
Tom shouldn’t be fighting Ellen’s battles or be Ellen’s confidant.
Reward cooperative behavior and build in quality time.
Carrots are always better than sticks. The rule of thumb is to take action and be as non-emotional as possible when you need to set limits. And when your child doesn’t have a tantrum at the checkout, when she is acting appropriately, it’s time to get out the balloons and confetti. The danger with always scolding and providing little reward is that the child learns to seek negative attention, which for a child is better than no attention at all. Building in regular quality time—a half hour before bed or a steady weekend outing with a teen—does much the same, offsetting the use of bad behavior to get attention.
Consider parenting classes or counseling.
A wealth of information is available on healthy parenting and taming the untamed child—online classes and videos, books, chatrooms. Even shorter-term counseling can help resolve any underlying drivers—helping you reach a consensus and build teamwork, tackling past trauma or marital issues, or providing family therapy to provide a forum for airing and solving problems.
The spoiled child will eventually become an unhappy adult, but there’s much you can do to change course. Need to step up?
Taibbi, R. Doing family therapy, 4th ed. (2019). New York: Guilford.